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A group of students from the Prerna Residential School for Girls in Patna, Bihar. The school houses, feeds and educates more than 100 students. (Candace Feit For The Globe and Mail)
A group of students from the Prerna Residential School for Girls in Patna, Bihar. The school houses, feeds and educates more than 100 students. (Candace Feit For The Globe and Mail)

Breaking Caste: Part 2

You can unlock the potential of India's Dalit girls, but where can they use it? Add to ...

Poonam has no higher-caste friends in Jamsaut. Before she left, when she attended the village school, other girls were careful to keep her from touching their papers or pens, and would not pass her a book. When she went to collect firewood, people would hiss, “Mushahar,” toss rocks and chase her off.

The biggest change in Jamsaut is that Poonam now thinks that's a problem.

For a vision of what her future may look like, Poonam need only look about 100 metres from her home. At the end of the lane is a house of much the same type, which belongs to a woman named Lalmathi.

She is Sister Sudha's pride and joy: When the nun first came to live in Jamsaut almost 30 years ago, Lalmathi was a tiny girl who ran about in a pair of torn knickers, waving a stick to herd pigs. But in the evenings she began to come to Sister Sudha, who used the stick to teach her to draw letters in the dirt. She convinced Lalmathi's parents that she should go to school – the dominant-caste people in the village didn't like it, but she made it through to matriculation, coached by Sister Sudha the whole way.

Whom Lalmathi would marry became a focus of discussion for the whole community. Caste rules said she must marry a Mushahar, but by the time she graduated she was in her 20s, almost unimaginably old, and vastly different from any of the illiterate labourers she might have been expected to wed.

Sister Sudha went on a search, and in a community in central Bihar found a young Mushahar man, Biteshwar, who was also unmarried and unusually bright. Lalmathi met him and grilled him: He had a bachelor's degree, he didn't drink, he didn't gamble, he was going to try to go to law school and he wanted her to keep studying after they married. He became her husband and came to live in her community.

She got a job as a teacher in a government school – the first person in the tola to move into the professional world. They have two children; their small house has an electric connection, and the children have plastic trucks and dolls to play with.

Lalmathi is a warm woman, quick to laugh. But in her quiet moments, she articulates a deep unease. The tola is the only home she has known, but increasingly she thinks that she and her family should leave. She would like to continue her education, and she wants her children to go to a good school.

“I would move to the city – to anywhere with a proper environment to study,” she says in one breath. “But if I stay, I might influence others to get educated.”

That's one problem – her sense of responsibility, of how profoundly Sister Sudha changed her own life. In addition, though, it's not as easy as simply heading for the city. In Patna, the capital of Bihar, the Mushahar live in tola as well – there is no guarantee a dominant-caste landlord will rent to her family.

It might be easier in Delhi, but that would be so far away from family, and they might have to adopt a non-Dalit surname to rent a room.

It is absurd, she says, for anyone to argue that caste is not a factor in India any more. When she cycles through dominant-caste areas on her way to work, people call out and mock her for her above-herself ambitions. At work, she says, “I sit down in meetings and everyone shifts away.”

She has her own defences firmly in place. “I just ignore them. I think they are mad people. … I stayed with Sudha a long time: I learned a lot about caste, and that gives me the strength to reject it.”

But what about her children? What if she sends them to a city school and people find out they are Mushahar?

“People think, ‘What can a Mushahar do? Catch fish or snails to eat – they can't be engineers. Why send the kids to school? A Mushahar can only be a Mushahar.'”

In a strange way, she thinks, they are safest here in the tola, where, if they keep to their own hand pump and their own pathways, the risks are minimized.

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